Battlemats are Television

Back in the earliest days of TV’s popularity there was a very real concern that it would be the end of radio. After all, given the choice between being able to see the action and having to use your imagination there’s no competition, right?

And they’re right – there is no competition. Imagination wins every time.

That’s where we are with battlemats and miniatures play, right now. While it’s tempting (and easiest) to sit back and watch the action unfold on a slab of pre-printed cardstock it’s just not that same as picturing the action in your mind. For a start, it limits your actions.

Let’s say you’re using a 5×5 battlemat. On the battlemat there’s a sarcophagus in the centre with pillars set into the four corners. It’s all there – you can see it – and the players’ actions are defined by the environment. If there’s a combat they’ll move around the pillars and perhaps treat the sarcophagus as difficult terrain. A wise GM might even allow a +1 attack bonus for higher ground if the hero is stood atop it.

Now, let’s play with our minds:

GM: You’re inside a 25′ square room. There is a sarcophagus in the centre and pillars set into the four corners. One of the pillars looks particularly worn and uneven. There’s arches to the North and East.
Player1: The lid isn’t moving is it? I hate it when that happens.
Player2: Is there any rubble underneath that pillar I can use as ammo for my sling?
Player3: Can we push the sarcophagus? There might be stairs down…..

… and the game plays on. We’re visualizing the scene and interracting with the environment in ways we just don’t do with a static battlemat. Of course, there’s nothing with using a battlemat and minis to stop us doing any of that, but let’s face it – we don’t. As a GM it’s liberating as well – I can add details to the scene based on the players’ questions, adding rubble, chandeliers to swing from and more. If I want to add a chest hidden in a shadowy corner, I can. Try doing that with a battlemat and you just look like a fool who forgot to put it in when you laid down the ‘mat.

Going back to the TV & Radio comparison. I remember and love the old Classic Radio Series where we can sit back and visualise the action. I can picture Superman, Tarzan, Doc Savage, Dick Tracy and the rest as they battle bad guys in full glorious imagination-o-vision. My idea of what they and the locations look like might well be different to how you visualise them, and that doesn’t matter. We’re sharing the narrative and each one of us is investing a little piece of ourselves into the tale. With the advent of TV, that piece of injected imagination died.

Except, of course, it didn’t. Radio as a media form is bigger and bolder than ever. Internet Radio has hit the intertubes in ways that TV could only dream of with new streaming stations appearing every hour of every day. Heck, you can even make your own. All those Classic Radio Serials (or a fair chunk of ’em, at least) live on with sites such as the OTR.Network Library offering literally thousands of shows for free listening pleasure. I recommend spending a few hours sitting back and giving your imagination a workout.

It will make you a better gamer, I swear.

8 Comments on “Battlemats are Television”

  1. I’m always torn over the use of battle mats and minis; I was a miniature wargamer first (before I got in to RPGs) and love collecting minis and find them very inspirational.

    However, they do slow things down when you’re in full GM-flow during a good RPG session.

    And, yes, they can also be counter-productive on the imagination front if you haven’t got the EXACT miniature to represent the antagonist you are describing and are having to rely on a proxy.

    It’s probably time to draw a line between RPGs and miniatures games – perhaps the only good use for a mini (or even an action figure) at the table is provide an aide-memoire for players (and GMs) as to who is playing what character (like a graphic name badge of a sort).

  2. The best trick I’ve figured out for gamers that love minis and battlemaps is to make the environment either to big for the map, or to move the combat beyond the drawn map in several directions. The players who are really stoked on using minis and finding just the right piece to represent this or that quickly forget about all that and find themselves in the game. Mostly I end up using the battle map as a dry erase board/shared notebook to track damage, notes, etc…

  3. Excellent post. Unfortunately, TV won over radio in the US and radio as a media form has all but died (Prairie Home Companion on NPR has quick sketches every now and then, but that’s all I’ve seen in modern times). Pity that we don’t have Doctor Who radio serials or anything like they do in the UK. Radio, including 99% of internet radio I’ve seen, is always music or talk. So I guess that means imagination has pretty much died in the US.

    That said, I’m definitely for using battlemats for the reasons you’ve mentioned, plus the cost factor. At my university, the classrooms we play in have dry erase boards and I’ve played Savage Worlds by drawing out rooms and labeling characters with letters. I even did an Indiana Jones mine cart scene by drawing squiggly lines on that board, which I could never ever have done on a tabletop! My players loved it and I was convinced that imagination, (with a bit of visual aid to prevent the “So where am I?” questions), is definitely king.

  4. I keep a bin of beads, rocks and small blocks handy while DMing to make sure my players are looking at a 3d environment with cover, stuff to throw, and things to climb on. Our descriptions still paint the picture (I usually proxy minis) and our imaginations get a workout as well. What I’ve noticed about 4e published encounter design is that the areas seem quite constrained. I think my battlemat is probably 30 inches by 45 inches (sorry for the old school measurement system) and we’re often sweeping books and plates and cans out of the way to use it all.

  5. I look at miniatures more as wireframes; they hint at the scene, but your mind’s eye fills in the necessary details.

    Personally, I’d say playing without the map is more like reading a book; you’re responsible for filling in almost all of the visual details. With the map, it’s more like radio — you’re given special effects, voices, etc. that help set the tone of the encounter.

    Dwarven Forge = HD TV. :)

    My group was mini-less back when we started in second edition, lo those many … many years ago, but we ultimately moved to 3rd because a) we like combat and b) it cut down on tactical confusion.

    I think our minis play hit its apex with D&D 3rd Edition; we tend to do things a bit more abstract now as we incorporate skill challenges and such into the game.
    .-= Ken Newquist´s last blog ..D&D 4th Edition: A Player’s Perspective =-.

  6. I don’t really like radio, but I do like playing without a battlemat.
    I believe that it’s a different style of play, not a better or worse way to play. Some encounters work better with a map, others without one.
    Sometimes you do not want to concern yourself with exact positioning and distances, the scene is to crowded to fit into 5-foot squares, or you want a non-tatical fight.
    In the other side, sometimes the players need the visual aid for a complex scene (but not too complex, or you won’t be able to picture it – a volcano with plenty of flying platforms that often change place or a piece of swirling chaos of Limbo, for example).

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